The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Each of my dives began the same way. I either had my tanks in the trunk of Teddy's 1956 Chevy, or I picked them up from the dive shop, where I left them to be filled. Once at the marina, I carried them down the dock and set them over the side on the deck of the Sea Lab.
Having a reef all to myself meant it wasn't being contaminated in between my dives on it. Too much diving on a reef, or diving done by people without the health and welfare of the reef in mind, disturbed the natural habitat in ways that inevitably caused it to deteriorate.
The natural order prevailed without outside influence. Once people were added to the equation, they became the major influence on a reef. The more people you have, the greater the influence they exerted on everything.
No matter the environment, once people were introduced, the deterioration began. While some people were aware and thoughtful, most wanted to have a good time at the least cost possible. They didn't think about the cost to the environment, and the result was more and more pollution.
Man was as toxic as any mold, virus, or insect.
Humans demanded everything change to accommodate them. It didn't matter how fragile or rare something was, once people arrived, all bets were off. Man came first, last, and always, without exception, especially when there was money to be made.
I wanted to save the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come. As fast as man's influence on the Gulf became evident, I couldn't be sure we got far enough out ahead of the pollution to make a difference.
My life's work may well have been a losing battle.
Anyone could dump anything in the Gulf and no one was any the wiser, but the negative impact had begun to take its toll. There were more and more people. Each wanted access to, and some wanted to profit from, the environment of his choice. The damage done was not a part of any equation when it came to money.
I wasn't certain man could interact with an environment and not leave a mess. Those of us who wanted to preserve what we had were outnumbered by those polluting to make money.
Harry wanted to insist they clean up after themselves but it was a long fight and before he got the Clean Water Act passed as law and signed by the President, the polluters had been at work.
I'd been diving for ten years. It wasn't unusual to bring back several soda bottles, a tire or two, and a couple of pounds of trash. I didn't remember seeing such things when I first began diving.
The Gulf of Mexico was huge. If I was finding people's garbage on every dive, there had to be a lot of it.
Studying a reef that the public didn't alter gave me a reason to be there at least twice a week. I made a dive on an alternate site once a week, if there was time. That meant three dives a week.
If I didn't do three dives a week, I felt like I was leaving something undone. I did love being under the sea. There was a beauty there that didn't exist anywhere else.
I was antsy today, even before the Sea Lab reached the channel. I'd been restless all day and I didn't know why. I wanted to get going. The speed in the channel was five miles per hour. It was slow.
Neither the Sea Lab nor I could wait to be free of all constraints.
Smiling, I thought of the trouble I had keeping the tri-hull under control until I was out of the cove. With its twin 40hp Evinrudes, the Seaswirl absolutely screamed. Once I pushed her throttles forward, it didn't take long to get where I was going. The Seaswirl cut quite a rooster tail through the water.
At twenty-eight I'd yet to quench my need for speed. Until Harry bought the tri-hull, I'd never experienced serious speed on or off the water. I had a life that was centered around my work, but I wasn't without vices. The need for speed was heightened by the second conservancy boat I used.
I loved being on the Gulf of Mexico. The faster I went and the further out I went, the better I liked it. With the Sea Lab at three quarters speed it felt like I was floating lackadaisically along. When the water was calm I had to work at feeling it under me. The size and weight of the Sea Lab meant it rode lower in the water and anything short of rough seas were smooth waters on her bridge.
The boat fought me to get going. We'd yet to clear the cove but open water was dead ahead and we could get going.
The Sea Lab was a far cry from the fourteen foot wooden runabout that served as our dive boat for my first couple of years at the conservancy. It had an old, unimpressive, 25hp Mercury engine. It was all wood and quite heavy.
When the wooden hull was more sealant than wood, Harry decided to restore it for use as a personal craft to ferry around special guests and bigger donors who came to see what we did.
The mahogany interior and polished wood finish made it a show boat for sure. Once restored, it was no longer appropriate for diving. It had always been Harry's boat and not the conservancy’s. It was what he had available for me to use at the time I joined his operation and diving became a big part of my education.
Once the fourteen footer was taken out of service, the search was on for a more appropriate diving platform. After two weeks Harry came to the conservancy to get me. We met Bill Payne at a dealer that was selling the new eighteen foot Seaswirl. They'd gained popularity shortly after they first appeared on the market.
Being a tri-hull made the Seaswirl more stable, which made it perfect for dives. There was plenty of room for equipment and the two 40hp Evinrudes meant we'd get to where we were going twice as fast. Both Harry and Bill Payne bought a Seaswirl on the same day. It fit into the slip where the fourteen-footer once occupied with plenty of room for another boat that size.
I had to go with Harry for the first week, but slowly he let me take the controls. I could see he was worried about all that power. I waited patiently to get my hands on the controls, savoring the speed Harry couldn't help but use. A couple of times he turned his head to smile at me as we kicked up a twenty foot high rooster tail behind us.
From then on I wasted no time getting where I was going and the Seaswirl had served me well until the year before. I didn't think another boat was necessary, but when I saw the Sea Lab, my heart skipped a beat. It was the end all and be all of floating laboratories. I'd give up speed to add the Sea Lab to my task of impressing donors with what we were capable of doing at the conservancy.
The Seaswirl was perfect for diving and skimming across the Gulf of Mexico. The Sea Lab allowed me to dive and an hour after I surfaced, I was making notes, and examining whatever specimen I'd brought back with me. I could either put it in the refrigerated compartment or add it to my bottles of specimens that would end up in the lab at the conservancy.
I remembered the day Harry called me into his office and said, “I wanted to talk to you about boats, Clayton.”
“Boats?” I said suspiciously. “Our Seaswirl's in great shape. Being fiberglass means no sealant in the hull.”
Harry laughed, remembering the shock of the man who first checked the hull before it was sent to be restored.
“We've got a problem, Clay. There's another boat,” Harry said solemnly and with all the conviction a congressman could muster.
“Another boat?” I asked confused.
“It would be easier for me to show you than explain it to you. Let's take a ride. You'll understand when you see the boat.”
We took a ride toward Tampa. An hour and a half later he left the Interstate, turning back toward the Gulf.
The road we ended up on left something to be desired. Then we ended up in a huge yard full of boats. Actually they weren't boats so much as they were yachts. I didn't know there were so many yachts and I was more confused than ever. They were huge with bridges towering above the deck.
“What do you think?” Harry asked before the car stopped.
“Think about what? I don't know anything about yachts, Harry. You're on your own if you're buying one. I don't get it,” I confessed, not knowing why I was there.
“Your new boat is in the shop. Want to take a look at it,” he said excitedly. “It's just come back from being fitted with the latest laboratory equipment on the market along with radar, sonar, and underwater cameras. It's the latest thing in sea exploration, Clayton.”
I was speechless. All the talk of frugality at the conservancy belied the idea of buying a yacht. Of course, as usual, I was always several steps behind Harry, but why wouldn't I be?
“Where'd the money come from for a floating laboratory?” I asked, knowing how carefully money was usually spent by the congressman.
“It's a donation to the conservancy from one of my donors. He's recently bought a place on the island. He was already interested in the work we're doing at the conservancy. We were talking about the importance of preserving the Gulf. I must have really been on my game that day.”
“He's paying for it?” I asked, still in shock.
“He called a week after our chat and said, 'I want to buy you a boat, Harry.' I told him congressman can't accept such gifts. He told me the boat was for the biology lab. 'Something nice,' he said. You've got to admit it's nice, Clayton.
“We're splitting the cost of the lab equipment between Mr. Mosby and the conservancy. It's equipment we'd have been buying soon anyway. I got a hold of Bill Payne to put the lab together to do what you'll need. You, Mr. Olson, are the best equipped marine biologist in the region. Congratulations! I knew all along you'd make something of yourself.”
I was speechless. The name, Sea Lab, was already stenciled on the back of the boat. No name fit the Sea lab as well as that one.
I was anxious to get out of the cove. I couldn't wait to throttle up and get to the dive site. My restlessness persisted. Usually, once I was underway, my thoughts were on my pending dive.
I felt expectant!
What I was anticipating was unknown. Everything had been going so well for so long, I didn't like to get too comfortable, and this was likely connected to that.
This was a routine day that had me on the way to doing my favorite thing. I tried to think of what could have caused me to be on edge without success. Dylan was fine. Pop was healthy again. Mama was happy. I was happy. Life was good. I knew it could go downhill fast, but I could get eaten by a shark or have a plane fall on me too.
Diving would clear my mind. When I dove I achieved a total focus. Diving was relaxing and it allowed me to center myself. The bee that was now buzzing in my brain would be short lived once I got into the water.
I checked the radar and saw nothing nearby. I walked off the bridge to double check, standing at the highest point on the boat behind the bridge. I scanned the horizon for company. There was nothing in site. This wasn't an area that attracted a lot of attention. It was too close in for fishing and too far out for someone hugging the coast while sailing south.
As I stood there looking from right to left and back, I remembered the last time I had the sensation I was experiencing today. After I took over Teddy's car, I was followed by the FBI from time to time. While I looked nothing like my brother, the car was enough to get the FBI excited.
They didn't try to hide their presence. They deduced that if I was driving my brother's car, I probably knew where he was. Actually, I drove his car because he didn't want them to be able to find him. The car would have been a dead giveaway of his whereabouts if he kept it.
The first year Teddy went underground in the draft resistance, anyone leaving the conservancy house was subject to being followed. It didn't get the FBI anywhere, but it didn't deter them either. They were persistent suckers. I could chuckle about it now.
Once I'd reached open water, pushing the throttle forward, the air got fresher and the day got nicer. I was sure I'd lose the willies I was experiencing. As I stood behind the bridge, I needed to decide if I'd go to my reef or go to a site further along.
I couldn't see anything in any direction. I got the binoculars to do one more scan to be sure. I still wasn't convinced I wasn't being followed, even though there was no evidence to support the feeling.
I laughed at myself and cursed the leftover residue from the FBI. I stayed behind the bridge to admire the Sea Lab's wake and the deep green sea that allowed me to get so completely free. I watched where I came from, still having a few miles to go. When I returned to the bridge to make sure I was still on course, the radar showed nothing.
I rarely dove this reef with company. It was unknown except for Harry and Bill Payne. Both of them were aware of everything I did. My journals were meticulously kept, which was a byproduct of Lucy's input at the lab. At Lucy's insistence everything I did each day went into the current journal, 'As a proper scientist does it.'
It was a violation of the law to fail to register a shipwreck upon its discovery. A proper scientist knows the laws concerning his field, but I wasn't diving on a shipwreck. I was diving on a reef.
Lord knows how long it took to become a reef but that was my excuse should someone stumble upon the reef and me studying it. I wasn't certain it was a shipwreck at first. I could see it wasn't a natural reef.
The law was in place to prevent someone from salvaging something without cutting the state in on the find and state taxes for the value recovered must be paid. Anyone who looked at the shipwreck could see that it hadn't been disturbed. My interest was in the creatures that now resided there.
I hadn't been certain what I'd found at the time but the fastest way to ruin a pristine reef is to tell people where it is. It would be useless for my studies after that.
Mention the word shipwreck and everyone and his brother would be diving it the next day. There would be so many boats I'd need to get in line to have a spot to anchor. The reef would be torn apart to get at whatever might be inside the ship. Keeping it to myself might do some good in the long run.
I still lived for the days I dove. No matter what was on my mind or what I faced in the way of annoyances, diving dissolved all stress for two hours. Being underwater was being in a different world. It was a world where human worries held little sway.
I'd remembered to bring the basket from the lab on this trip. I wanted to bring up two barnacle encrusted brick shaped objects. Maybe that's what had me on edge. It was the first time I'd brought anything up from the vicinity of the shipwreck that couldn't be classified as a specimen. I had a plan for the bricks.
They weren't close to the reef. Anyone could see the reef hadn't been disturbed in hundreds of years. I kept my distance and observed, taking pictures on a regular schedule. I'd never made any attempt to see what was on the shipwreck.
I'd discovered the bricks a few weeks before. They were dozens of yards away from the reef. They weren't part of the shipwreck. How they got there, I didn't know. I could hazard a guess, but I didn't. Scientists didn't guess, and therein was my out.
Some late season storms churned up the bottom and uncovered the objects. I looked them over when I first found them, but it took a few days for me to have plans for two of the brick-shaped objects.
I hadn't seen them before and I'd been diving there for over a year. After stumbling on the objects a few times, I decided they'd be good replacements for the rotting coconuts that held open the double doors that lead from my bedroom to the screened in porch.
Today I was taking two bricks home. They'd hold the doors open fine and they wouldn't smell or rot.
I checked my compass to be sure I was on course. Cutting back on the throttle, I let the Sea Lab idle as I dropped anchor. I watched the radar and walked back to examine the horizon again. No one was in the area. I cut the engines to prepare for the dive. The reef was fifty yards off starboard.
Since first being underwater, this was my element. The only time I hurried was after leaving the slip. The excitement built until I dropped anchor, double checking to be sure where the reef was.
I was in no hurry now. I got my equipment for the dive on deck. Once I was ready, I checked the horizon for any boat close enough to be curious about what the Sea Lab was up to.
It was a beautiful day. There was no sign of the winter changes that could come at any time. The days were warm and clear and the nights were perfect for sleeping. There were a couple of storms but the good weather returned after they passed.
All was well and it was just another perfect day in paradise.
Half a lifetime ago, I'd become a fisherman. I was fascinated by the sea creatures that came out of our nets. Thinking about journeying to where they lived hadn't occurred to me.
I'd seen Sea Hunt, watching former frogman Mike Nelson SCUBA dive, but as a fisherman, my business was done from a boat. Once I got underwater, it hit me. This is where I want to be. This is where the sea creatures are. My future was taking shape.
Once I went diving, being on the surface of the water lost a lot of luster. After anchoring and preparing my equipment, I slipped into my gear, holding my flippers and mask as I descended the ladder.
I rinsed my mask in the salt water before putting it on. It wouldn't fog up now. I slid the flippers on one at a time, letting go of the boat, drifting free. I began to sink slowly into the soft green sea. I hung in the liquid ten feet below the boat with almost no effort. Even with the tanks I was buoyant. The high salt content of the water helped to keep the body from sinking. It also burned your eyes something fierce if you kept them open too long in the Gulf. A mask eliminated that problem.
My eyes got red after swimming with Dylan behind the house in the morning. We both enjoyed an early morning swim and we didn't wear eye protection. My eyes stayed red for a couple of hours after a swim.
Ivan and I hadn't noticed the burning or the red eye.
As I slowly moved deeper, I watched the sun's rays cut fine streaks in the turquoise sea. A glance at the surface showed me what a bright day it was. It revealed a billion tiny organisms between me and the surface, but nothing else was there.
Below me it was clear but darker. The brighter light didn't penetrate well at that depth. I slowly settled onto the sandy bottom. I took one more look up to see if there was any motion or activity above me.
Moving along the bottom, I swam toward the reef. To someone entering the water from above, I'd be invisible, hidden in the shadows. They'd stand right out on the sunny surface.
At the site of the shipwreck the water was no more than forty or fifty feet deep. The upper section of the wreckage was no more than twenty feet below the surface, but you couldn't tell what it was at a glance. The reef distorted the shape of the ship.
In an emergency I could jettison my tanks and make it to the surface in a few seconds. That's not how you wanted to surface but I knew it was an option if I ran into trouble. The worry about nitrogen bubbles in my blood was minimal at this depth.
I usually took my time surfacing from any depth. It was smart for a diver not to get in a hurry. I tried to be smart. I tried not to get into trouble. I'd been at this a long enough to know what I was doing.
I took my time adapting to the sensations of weightlessness. I checked my equipment and the environment around me. I had no desire to create trouble for myself. I knew exactly where the shipwreck was from the point where I entered the water.
I didn't anchor too close to it. I didn't go directly to it either. I did keep an eye on the surface for signs of movement. Today I spent even more time looking up at what was above me. There was nothing there but the feelings of anticipation hadn't subsided.
I took precautions to preserve the shipwreck as I'd found it. One day I might get curious and explore the wreck, but to explore the ship would mean destroying the reef. I saw no need to do that.
I'd never heard another boat approach that location. Once I went to the reef, I was quite a ways from where I left the Sea Lab. I didn't think I'd hear a boat from that distance. The Sea Lab stood out from every other boat. Stealing it would have been foolish. Anyone who saw it remembered seeing it, and they'd remember the skipper too. Me! It rarely left the slip without me on board.
Duel tanks gave me two hours of air. At an hour and forty five minutes I prepared to surface. I Still had my original tank stowed on board. If I found something interesting, it gave me an additional hour underwater.
At this depth an extra hour on bottled air wouldn't be a problem and it gave me a chance to take a second look at something I discovered. I avoided the need to come back the next day.
It was rare I wasn't satisfied by the time a dive ended. It was my element. It's where I felt most comfortable. My senses were heightened. I tingled with excitement before every dive. I didn't want to miss anything or get surprised. Hyper-awareness kept me safe.
The deep is a wonderful place. It was also a place where you could find yourself in trouble fast. A diver shared the water with predators who stayed well fed by being able to slip up on their prey. The best idea was to be aware of what was in the water with you at all times.
The attacks on divers by sharks, barracuda, or manta ray are miniscule, but that didn't mean it didn't happen if you forgot where you were. It was a lesson. Seeing a shark up close is an amazing experience, but not if he's eating you.
Alertness was the key to safety.
Euphoria often followed a dive. I didn't like the minute when I realized it was time to go. I had to remind myself of how much I'd seen and how lucky I was to be back soon to do it all over again. It didn't make it easy to leave but the prospects of the next dive kept me involved, as I took final notes in my head.
Once I was back on the Sea Lab, there were things to do. Each dive was different and I needed think about what I wanted to write about this one and get the equipment ready for the next dive before this one was complete.
When I got on the Sea Lab's deck there was a prize and a surprise. I'd put the two bricks in the basket I took with me and I hooked the basket to the line I tied to the rail, dropping the basket in before I went in. The basket felt heavier than I expected it to feel.
Once I had the basket on the railing, it was a heavy sucker, I nearly dropped it on my foot before getting it on deck.
My preparation for claiming the bricks didn't prepare me for the biggest surprise, once they were on the Sea Lab.
“Want a root beer, Clay?” Ivan asked, standing naked in the doorway that led to the interior of the boat.
“Ivan Aleksa, are you trying to give me heart failure?” I yelped, grabbing my chest as I whirled around. “How did you get out here? How did you know where I was? Where in the hell have you been,” I blurted without waiting for any answers.
“I love you too, sweetheart,” he said, taking a drink of root beer and staying put.
If Ivan had been a gorgeous boy, he was one hunk of a man. At twenty-eight he'd filled out, matured, and his face showed some wear on it, but his well cut features were as perfect as ever. Looking at me made me feel faint. Not looking at him for the past few years pissed me off. Not hearing from him for a year made me angrier yet.
“I don't drink root beer,” I finally managed, knowing he knew. “I drink Pepsi in case you've forgotten,” I explained.
He held up the bottle of Pepsi he'd been holding behind his back.
“I came all this way to say hello to my lover, and he treats me like a stowaway,” Ivan said, knowing where to aim to hit the exposed nerves. “And I wore this just for you.”
It wasn't easy staying in control of my emotions. There were a million feelings running through me. I was delighted to know Ivan was alive. I knew exactly where he was for the first time in years. My mind wasn't so eager as my heart to see him. The upheaval and turmoil began anew. Ivan rocked my world in more ways than one.
“You know, I'd bring the Pepsi over there if I wasn't afraid you'd belt me,” he said, knowing I'd never raise a hand to him and pissing me off even more than usual.
“When have I ever belted you, Ivan?” I asked. “You making it up as you go along now?”
“Always a first time for everything, my love,” he said. “I'd deserve it if you did belt me. I'd never hit you back, Clay, but I deserve to be whipped for the way I've treated the man I love.”
“I know, Ivan. As hard as you make it on me, I'd walk away before I'd be violent, and don't mistake that for my being okay with you leaving me hanging.”
“You have moved up in the world, Mr. Olson. Where the hell did the floating palace come from? I tried to get a look at one of your laboratories, but you've got this place locked up tight as a drum.”
“I don't want to lose my notes or specimens. This floating lab was the gift of one Mr. John S. Mosby III. He donated it to the conservancy,” I said. “It's loaded with lab equipment. I'll show you if you have time. It's a dream come true for a marine biologist. Professionally things are very good.”
“I still see you as a kid in my head, Clay. You have come a long way. You've made something out of yourself. That makes me feel good. I feel safe enough I can bring the Pepsi to you now.”
I watched his muscular arms and chest undulate as he moved over to me. I recognized his scent from ten feet away. I closed my eyes and breathed in his essence. It had been way too long.
He walked to where I'd put the basket on the deck, glancing down at the two barnacle covered objects. I could see the question on his face. He considered what I'd considered at first.
I was afraid to move. I was afraid he'd disappear between there and here. I was afraid I surfaced too fast. I was afraid Ivan was an illusion. This was the kind of dream I had all the time, and I dreamed about him most nights. We were still together.
I'd wake up to an empty bed when I dreamed those dreams.
I'd been waiting for Ivan to come home for ten years. You'd think I'd have stopped waiting by now, but he did something to me no one else could do. Until he said different, I'd wait.